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The women joining forces across the border to fight Ireland’s abortion laws

Northern Ireland has a major stake in the upcoming referendum – activists tell us how they’re involved in the spirited pro-choice campaign

Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.

I first got involved with Alliance for Choice six years ago, but it was after the arrest and conviction of a 21-year-old for taking abortion pills she had ordered online that I became outreach stall coordinator, making the pro-choice voice present in Belfast. I have heard heartbreaking stories of abuse, told to me in daylight on the street because they know we won’t judge, in a country that’s been shrouded in shame.  

Northern Ireland, one of the countries with the strictest abortion laws in the world, isn’t bound by a constitution, unlike Ireland, meaning that a referendum isn’t what’s needed to change the law – however, there does need to be political will to change from either Stormont or Westminster, which hasn’t yet been offered to people who can get pregnant in NI. People remain bound by outdated, downright draconian laws around reproductive rights. This upcoming referendum could be the catalyst for disruption necessary to bring abortion rights in line.

Following the Northern Irish government Stormont’s collapse in February 2017, there’s been a political vacuum into which Westminster could and should act to bring in free, safe, legal abortion access. When it became clear that the DUP – a largely anti-choice party whose members are notorious for racist, sexist, homophobic soundbites reflective in their policies – were to prop up the minority Conservative government in June 2017, pressure from Labour MPs and Conservative backbenchers means that from October, women from Northern Ireland have no longer had to pay for abortion procedures in England. Extending the existing 1967 Abortion Act from the rest of the UK to NI had previously been tabled with Labour in their last government but was passed over in exchange for DUP support for detention without trial. For Westminster, Northern Irish politics seems to be a pawn rather than about human rights, supporting minorities, or strengthening the Union.

With a vibrant grassroots campaign that has the support of the most senior politicians in Ireland, pro-choice activists from the north are getting involved in Together for Yes, the campaign pushing to widen abortion access in 26 counties of Ireland; canvassing and helping out on information stalls. In Northern Ireland, there is not one clear path to abortion reform but there is for Ireland –  a yes vote on May 25.

Danielle Roberts, a PhD student at Ulster University, has been involved in local group Alliance for Choice for years, was on the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth steering group, and now coordinates Alliance for Choice’s canvassing as part of the Together for Yes campaign.

She hopes that repealing the Eighth will help women and pregnant people from Northern Ireland: “Alliance for Choice have always worked on a cross border basis, with a sort of belief that any change on the island would benefit everyone,” she says. “Unfortunately that isn't true with the recent funding for treatment. Helping with Abortion Rights Campaign, Coalition to Repeal the 8th, and now Together for Yes organising is a continuation of that practical focus. There is a real chance for change here so we need to throw our efforts behind it.”

The responses door to door are similar to the responses we have from the outreach stall: people don't know how restrictive their own laws are. Danielle’s experience while canvassing in Drogheda was mostly positive, but she was surprised that with all coverage of the referendum, people still didn't have all the facts. “Some didn’t know that pregnancy as a result of a sex crime is not a lawful reason for an abortion in Ireland, north or south,” Danielle explains. “I’ll be canvassing again in the run up to the referendum – there are still a lot of undecided voters and having these conversations about the real life impact of the Eighth amendment is what will hopefully help them realise why it needs to be removed to allow for comprehensive healthcare, compassion at home, and any legal change at all.”

“I am passionate about equality, and I feel frustrated at the current situation in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in terms of women’s reproductive rights. I felt like it was impossible to sit and do nothing”

Riley Johnston is a secondary school teacher who has seen the referendum as the time for her to get involved in activism. She says: “In the last few years we have seen important decisions made over the world that, to the educated and informed and open-minded, are nonsensical. I’m sick of sitting on the sidelines shaking my head so I have decided to get involved and speak up for good sense and I’m canvassing.” 

Clea Allen, a 21-year-old student who, like Riley, has been inspired to get involved now with the campaigning, adds: “I am passionate about equality and I feel frustrated at the current situation in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in terms of women’s reproductive rights. I found out recently about Alliance for Choice travelling down to help with the repeal campaign. I felt like it was impossible to sit and do nothing.”

Looking forward to post-referendum expectations, Dr Fiona Bloomer, a senior academic at the Ulster University, foresees continued hard work to protect women in the future. “If the referendum in the Republic of Ireland overturns the eighth amendment the possible impacts are twofold, firstly depending upon the wording of the legislation and policy regulations it may be possible for women in Northern Ireland to travel to access abortions in the Republic,” she says. “The easier travel arrangements between the two jurisdictions would be of benefit to those for whom travelling is a significant barrier (like those with caring responsibilities). One potential flaw in this option is the proposed waiting period of 72 hours, which would be a further burden on those living some distance from the healthcare setting providing abortions.”

Like with equal marriage, abortion law in Northern Ireland may be an anomaly across these islands. Alliance for Choice, Amnesty International, and Family Planning Association have campaigned across all fronts for years and have been winning over public support. Recent surveys have shown that the public want a change in abortion law: 81 per cent of respondents believe abortion should be legal in cases where the baby won’t survive, 83 per cent believe it should be legal when the mother's life is at risk and 70 per cent of those who took part thought that abortion should be a matter for medical regulation and not criminal law. Ultimately, Northern Ireland is a pro-choice country.

The fight for abortion rights isn't just about how many people come out to a protest: there are people using their creativity to design t-shirts and necklaces, people organising pub quizzes, there is ‘yoga for yes’, and club nights like Room for Rebellion raising vital funds.

Emma Campbell is the co-chair for Alliance for Choice, as well as being an artist whose work was featured as part of the X-ile project, documenting women and pregnant people who have travelled for abortions.  

She believes campaigning has been at its best when people have brought their own personality to it. “My background is as an artist, so I love being able to use those skills and bring in my friends in the arts to try and bring something different to the conversation,” she tells me. “We’ve curated a day at a film festival, had art exhibitions, karaoke for Choice, makers markets, theatre and tonnes of crafting and workshops. Not everyone can contribute by knocking on doors, but not everyone has to. The creative folks have brought a lot of energy and vibrancy to the movement.”

In 2017, Belfast’s only abortion clinic closed after five years in the capital – a place that pregnant people could seek terminations under nine weeks if they met the strict criteria, proving their life or mental health was at serious risk. Across those years, the clinic dealt with hundreds of graphic, at times violent anti-choice protests, while providing care and support to hundreds of people – the youngest was 13-years-old, sexually abused by a relative, and the oldest 52. The closure of the country’s only rape crisis centre almost a decade ago saw concern rise for survivors seeking support. Though pregnant people from NI can now access abortion care on the NHS when travelling to the UK, political intent to bring free, safe, legal, local care to home is paramount. As we hope for a positive result with the upcoming referendum on May 25, whatever happens, the pro-choice people of Northern Ireland will continue to push for the change they need.

You can support Alliance for Choice here, and Together for Yes here